Blinken in Middle East to sell Gaza ceasefire deal

Blinken in Middle East to sell Gaza ceasefire deal

Just nowBy Tom Bateman, State department correspondentEPA

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Egypt as he attempts to build regional support for a draft Gaza peace deal recently unveiled by President Joe Biden.

The top American diplomat is on his eighth visit to the Middle East since the start of the war in Gaza.

Mr Blinken will first meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, before talks later on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mediators in the region – which also include Qatar – have been attempting to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas for months.

Mr Netanyahu has vowed to resist any such deal until Hamas’s military and governing capabilities are destroyed and all hostages are released.

On Saturday, Israel’s forces, backed by air strikes, freed four more captives after fighting intense gun battles with Hamas in and around the Nuseirat refugee camp.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said the raid killed 274 people, including children and other civilians. Israel says fewer than 100 people died in the operation.

After the offensive, Hamas’s political leader said the group would not agree to a ceasefire deal unless it achieved security for Palestinians.

Mr Blinken will use his trip to urge Arab leaders to pressurise Hamas into accepting the ceasefire-for-hostage release deal that the US desperately seeks.

The three-phase plan set out 10 days ago by Mr Biden would involve a six-week ceasefire that would become permanent, and the rebuilding of Gaza with international assistance.

The president called it Israel’s proposal, in an attempt to effectively bounce the two sides into progress.

Mr Biden’s officials claim the text is “nearly identical” to one endorsed by Hamas last month. “The only thing standing in the way of achieving this ceasefire is Hamas. It is time for them to accept the deal,” Mr Blinken said on Saturday.

Hamas is likely to demand guarantees the plan would lead to a permanent ceasefire and full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Its political leadership in Doha has yet to formally respond to the proposal, according to US and Israeli officials, so it remains to be seen whether indirect negotiations can resume.

During its 7 October attacks in southern Israel, Hamas killed about 1,200 people and took some 251 people hostage.

Some 116 remain in the Palestinian territory, including 41 the army says are dead.

A deal agreed in November saw Hamas release 105 hostages in return for a week-long ceasefire and some 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The Hamas-run health ministry says the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 37,000.

Grief in Gaza as scores killed in IDF hostage raid

While Mr Biden presented the peace initiative as an Israeli one, the US also knows Israel’s own fractious ruling coalition is approaching the plan with much reluctance.

This extends to outright opposition by some far-right ministers who are threatening to trigger a collapse of the government if the deal progresses.

America’s chief diplomat is therefore flying into the thick of a political storm in Israel with few signs of a breakthrough on the truce proposal. The resignation of former general Benny Gantz from the war cabinet on Sunday has deepened the sense of instability around Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom the White House has become exasperated over the course of the war.

For officials in Washington, Mr Gantz had become a preferred point of contact. He quit after giving Mr Netanyahu an 8 June deadline to meet his demands. Many of his objections to Mr Netanyahu’s handling of the war – including over a lack of any meaningful governance plan for a post-Hamas Gaza – closely mirrored those of the Biden administration.

On Sunday, Mr Gantz accused the prime minister of putting his political survival ahead of the national interest, keeping Israel “from achieving real victory”. Mr Netanyahu fired back that this was not a time for colleagues to quit but to “join forces”.

Mr Gantz’s resignation pulls the Israeli government’s centre of gravity back towards the far-right, although it remains unclear how his move will affect the pressure Washington can bring to bear on Mr Netanyahu, with its chief goal still being to build backing for the truce agreement.

Meanwhile in Cairo, Mr Blinken will meet the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is likely to press him to make progress on the issue of the Rafah border crossing.

The gate from Egypt is a lifeline for humanitarian aid entering Gaza and is also the only international exit route for wounded Palestinians, small numbers of whom have been able to leave over the course of the war for hospital treatment in Egypt. It has also been the primary route by which international aid teams have travelled in and out of Gaza.

The Rafah crossing has remained closed since Israel captured and occupied the crossing from Hamas forces last month, in a move which has outraged the Egyptian leadership.

Egypt has been demanding officials from the internationally-recognised Palestinian Authority are put in control of the Rafah crossing, a move so far rejected by Israel. The longer the standoff remains unresolved, the worse the risks become of a crisis between Israel and Egypt, who made peace five decades ago and whose longstanding treaty agreements are critical in trying to maintain regional stability.


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